Fossils Buried Deep in Lava Tubes Hold Secrets to Hawaii’s Avian History

Helen James mixes spelunking and paleontology to piece together the lives of the island's extinct and endangered birds.

Ask Helen James about her favorite birds, and she’ll give you a strange list of contenders: the ibis that noses through the island leaf litter, pretending it’s a kiwi; the duck with such bad eyesight it simply feels its way around; and the long-legged owl that makes its kills in broad daylight.

These were real birds that once lived on the Hawaiian Islands where James, a paleontologist, hunts for fossilized avian remains from the Quaternary Period. After excavating the bones, she takes them back to her lab at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., where she compares them against 60,000 modern specimens. By matching the anatomies, she can narrow down the extinct species’ diet, appearance, and sensory features. “You build up to a point where you can begin to see the bird itself, just from the bones,” James says.

Since she began visiting the islands four decades ago, James has discovered and described close to 40 bygone species. The biggest fossil gold mines for flightless birds, she says, are the vast underground cave systems formed by volcanic eruptions; the animals would fall into the maze-like tunnels and become enshrined in the dark, insect-free environment. Some of the caves are comfortable enough to walk or crawl in. Others, James says, are covered in jagged edges.

While James’s work reconstructs what’s been lost forever, it also has a larger purpose: to help protect Hawaii’s remaining diversity. Spelunking around the lava tubes, she sometimes finds centuries- or millennia-old skeletons of species that are still around today but are endangered. These fossils indicate the bird’s historical presence and, in turn, point to the habitat that needs to be protected for it to rebound.

That principle is already at play. Seventy years ago, Hawaii’s state bird, the Nēnē, could be found only on the Big Island, with the wild population down to 30 individuals. But since a captive breeding program introduced the goose to Kauai’s lowlands—the same environment that James’s research determined their ancestors loved—the species is thriving once again. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also talking about bringing the extirpated Laysan Duck back to the main islands based on fossil evidence. It’s not quite raising the dead—just using their long-buried secrets to guide survival.